Football is a great leveller and, often , those with most grandiose grounds can find themselves pitted against teams from more humble surroundings.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the lower reaches of the English Football League. In particular, League One and League Two, which often pit sides against each other from very different backgrounds. However good facilities don’t win you points and, equally, they don’t guarantee success.
Next season, Sunderland will play in the third tier for only the second time in their history. Their home ground, the Stadium of Light, will host some big clubs too. Portsmouth are FA Cup winners of the not-so-distant past, whilst Coventry City have their own nice stadium, or rather they play in one. Now isn’t the time to talk about who owns that particular pile.
Those sides will be mixing it with teams from far less salubrious homes, such as Rochdale and Accrington. Accrington Stanley, in particular, have earned the right to play at that level but their Crown Ground, which holds 5,000 fans, will be something of a culture shock to Sunderland fans.
Last season, they won League Two with a game to spare, securing the title at home by beating Lincoln City 1-0. The stadium that day held a bumper crowd, many in a temporary open terrace built to ensure they complied with league regulations. The toilet facilities were simply a row of portable toilets, seven in all, catering for almost 1,000 people. This will be very different to what Sunderland fans experienced as they travelled to Fulham, Derby and Aston Villa.
Accrington still won the league, though, with the ground possibly more of a help than a hindrance. Elsewhere, Notts County, with the huge Meadow Lane stadium, stumbled into the top three early in the season but couldn’t maintain a challenge and played their games in front of half-empty stands most weeks. 3,000 people at Accrington certainly make more atmosphere than 6,000 at Notts County.
Whilst the state of the ground means very little, the size of the club means everything and Sunderland have been installed as firm favourites for this year’s League One title. That isn’t based on their 49,000 all-seater stadium, but rather on their recent history as a top-flight club and the players they may be able to lure to play for them.
Meanwhile, Accrington Stanley can be found as one of the favourites for relegation, but what does this consider? The budget, the quality of the playing staff and the like, but not the surroundings. Will their ground actually be an advantage? After coming from the top flight, how will Sunderland players cope with cramped dressing rooms, wide open spaces and basic amenities? It won’t just be at Accrington either; Rochdale’s Spotland is no palace, nor Roots Hall at Southend.
At the moment, Coral football betting, who are offering up to £100 in betting offers, have Charlton, Portsmouth and Barnsley towards the top of the odds, whilst Gillingham, Accrington and Wimbledon are towards the bottom.
Do these odds take into account the surroundings at all? Do they assume that those big clubs with palatial stands and big changing rooms will triumph, whilst those with brick walls and tea huts will not? Last season in League Two, Accrington triumphed over teams with bigger grounds, bigger crowds and bigger budgets. They weren’t amongst the favourites then and nobody should ever write off the advantage of having a tight little ground reminiscent of the early 1980s. It can be a huge advantage.